For the first time, I get to be more than a guest. One of my best friends got engaged in May and asked me to be a bridesmaid. I am one of only four, one quarter of her innermost circle. I’m nervous; I’ve never been a bridesmaid before. I don’t want to let her down. I worry that my need for assistance will throw a wrench in my role and somehow mess with her big day. That’s the last thing I want; the role of a bridesmaid is to take care of the bride, help her to plan, and ease as much of her stress as we can, not the other way around.
Lesson: No good ever comes from misrepresentation. About a month ago, the bride got all of her girls together for the first time; we had dinner at a swanky downtown restaurant. Waiters in formal attire, dim lighting, beautiful decorative foliage, several courses of Indian/Asian fusion cuisine, two rounds of sangria, desert.
My beautiful girl has been an unfailing constant in my life for four years. She and her fiancé go above and beyond to ensure that I am included, integral and loved. They are two of the best friends I could ever want or wish for. All this is to say that she is not stupid – when she’s making plans, she knows what must be in place in terms of accessibility. She assured me that this restaurant was fully wheelchair accessible; she asked them about both the entrance and the washroom facilities – they answered in the affirmative on both counts. She didn’t miss anything. So imagine my surprise upon arriving to see a giant, six-inch step in front of the entrance. I called her from the cab, “Sweetie, there’s a huge step out front. They said they were accessible, right? How do I get in?”
Moments later, my friend emerged into the rain with a restaurant employee by her side. We were led around the side of the building, through a short alley way filled with potholes and messy gravel. As we made our way we commented to each other that this was unacceptable. When we reached the end of the alley, the restaurant employee told us to wait, the side door had no mechanism to be opened from the outside and he would have to go inside to let us in.
My friend was apologizing to me profusely – she’d been so fixated on arriving and getting out of the rain she hadn’t noticed the step out front. But when making the reservation, they happily assured her that they were perfectly accessible, failing to mention the necessity of the side entrance which couldn’t be opened from outside. “This is not what ‘accessible’ means,” she kept muttering. I did not want her flustered for her big night with all the girls; I told her not to worry – it wasn’t her fault that she’d been misinformed – I was safely inside and that was all that mattered.
The food was amazing. The service was fantastic. The drinks were expertly mixed. We laughed, we squealed, we toasted the bride. We discussed dresses, bridal showers and bachelorettes and agreed that we all hoped to be so lucky as to find a man as amazing as the one she is marrying. He even popped in towards the end of the night to say hello to all the ladies and have a drink with us.
When I had to leave, my friends walked me out. We made our way to the side door, past the bathrooms (which I noticed, despite being large enough to fit my wheelchair, had no support bars on the wall and did not offer any space for maneuvering once inside). We opened that door to find a car parked less than three feet in front of the door, blocking any hope of an exit.
We immediately flagged down restaurant staff and the manager. The manager set off trying to find the owner of the car. I looked around the restaurant and thought, “There is no way they’re going to be able to find the owner of that car. There are at least two hundred people in here.” It turns out that the hundreds of diners were not the problem. The small area the car was parked in is not restaurant property; it’s the city’s jurisdiction.
At that moment, I had two thoughts. First, “Any hope of getting out of here without causing a scene just disappeared,” and second “How the hell AM I going to get out of here?” I was in my power chair. Roughly four hundred pounds of dead weight – that step out front may as well have been a mountain.
Eventually even my cab driver came in to suss out the problem (lesson: an amazing cab driver is priceless). The situation culminated in my cab driver, the groom and four other men – including the restaurant manager – lifting my chair down a six-inch step off the patio.
The manager was extremely apologetic and offered to pay my cab fare. I wasn’t about to let him do that; I didn’t want him to do anything that might ease his conscience. “The cab is paid for. That is not my concern,” I said. “What concerns me, is that you are claiming your restaurant to be wheelchair accessible when it is not. My friend asked all the right questions when making the reservation. She told you a member of her party used a wheelchair and you told her you could accommodate that. You lied. You are misrepresenting your establishment and that is inexcusable. You feel bad? You want to fix it? Stop lying. What happened to me tonight never should have happened at all. You need to make sure that it never happens to anyone else.”
The manager had given me his card. I phoned him to offer any assistance I could in terms of how to address accessibility. I told him that my friend was getting married and she had asked me to be a bridesmaid; the night was a celebration. But the celebratory tone went a little sour when one of the bride’s best friends found herself trapped in the restaurant. He told me that the door that the car had been blocking was also the restaurant’s fire exit.
And you’re out!
I phoned fire prevention services to report the situation in detail. I provided them with the restaurant’s name and phone number and identified the manager. Toronto Fire Prevention Services have investigated the situation and are addressing it. I am not allowed access to their findings or decisions on the matter.
You can force me to come in a side door and you can have bathrooms that I can’t use. That’s fine. But don’t mess with the happiness of my friends and cause them stress they don’t need. DO NOT mess with public safety while sending the unequivocal message that I, as a wheelchair user, am unwelcome.
Here endeth the lessons.
By Layla Guse Salah
DTN, Social Media Manager